The White Cliffs of Dover recorded to support the Royal Hospital
26th June 2020
Celebrated singer, Peter Straker, Friend to Freddie Mercury, David Bowie -and the Chelsea Pensioners records The White Cliffs of Dover to raise funds for the Royal Hospital.
Peter Straker, actor, musician and cabaret artist, has an impressive CV. He starred in the original production of the ground-breaking musical Hair and has been in productions of The Rocky Horror Show and Tommy as well as Shakespearean roles. He knew Elton John and worked with Pete Townsend, collaborated with Queen’s Freddie Mercury, who was his close confidant and counted David Bowie among his friends.
Now Peter has done us the great honour of recording The White Cliffs of Dover (video at the end of this article) to raise money for the Royal Hospital, a cause that is close to his heart:
“I’ve always liked the Chelsea Pensioners”, Peter says, “I’ve been to the Royal Hospital a few times and spoken to a few. They’re really nice and friendly. I wanted to do something local too. Chelsea is in my DNA and I lived there for many years.”
“I’ve never wanted to be pigeonholed”
Peter, who was born in Jamaica but has lived in London since he was eight, followed in the footsteps of his mother, who was a singer and performer. “I really wanted to be a proper actor, but I didn’t do the studying. I could also sing, so I decided to make it my living”, Peter says.
His big breakthrough was in the innovative Hair which, Peter says, “changed the musical genre”. Since then, he’s been involved in an eclectic range of projects:
“I’ve always wanted to try and move forward and do different things. So that’s what I tried to do so I wouldn’t be pigeon-holed. I didn’t want to be left in a box, struggling to get out!”
“I was lucky to be Freddie’s pal”
It was in the 1970s that Peter began to mingle with well-known rock stars.
“I signed with RCA records at the same time as David Bowie, so I got to know him first. Then I got to know John Reed who looked after Elton John. It was almost a social network. We knew each other and knew other people who knew each other. I was introduced to Freddie by John Reed who managed Queen for two or three years. So that’s how we became friends. He was a great influence on me because I liked what he and Queen were doing. We met socially in a restaurant and we kept running into each other. We liked each other and he came over to my flat and we’d talk. And then one day I said ‘I’d like to make another album’, and I would love you to produce it for me’.”
That album – This One’s On Me – together with two of Peter’s other cult classic albums, Changeling and Real, Natural Man, have recently been rereleased in a three-CD set with reproductions of the original covers and a fascinating recollections of Freddie Mercury.
Peter remembers Freddie fondly:
“He had a great zest for life and was always a very generous and wonderful host. He loved having good parties and was able to do so with panache. I was very lucky to be one of his pals.”
The fun of that friendship is immortalised in the video for Queen’s The Great Pretender, where Peter appears alongside Freddie and Roger Deacon in drag.
“That was a wonderful night of filming. I was in Bristol at the time rehearsing Julius Caesar. I got let off from rehearsal earlier in the afternoon and drove up to London and we started filming at about midnight because we had to do all that getting ready. We finished at three of four in the morning. I lay down on Freddie’s couch for an hour and a half and I was up again to rehearse at 10 the following morning back in Bristol!”
“David Bowie had a great sense of humour”
Peter’s memories of David Bowie are equally vivid:
“I ran into him again in Montreux, when he was recording Young Americans and he used to come the studio and we’d sing and mess around together. Then when I was in London, rehearsing Tommy with Pete Townsend, we used to hang out together all the time.
When he was in the film Just a Gigolo I went to the premiere in the Café Royal. It was freezing cold and all the usual cars were in for servicing. All the driver had was his own VW – so off we went, picking up David on the way. Afterwards we went out for the night – it was fantastic, driving around in this Beetle. David had a great sense of humour and I’m happy he was my friend.”
“I wanted to do something for the veterans”
Some might be surprised that Peter decided to record such a traditional song for the Chelsea Pensioners. He told us how the project came about and why he settled on The White Cliffs:
“When I was very young, I was in The Gang Show. I remember singing The White Cliffs of Dover when I was 16 or 17 and felt it was one of the great songs. The recording was very spontaneously done. The weekend before VE Day I was sitting at home on my own during lockdown thinking, “This is ridiculous, there must be something I can do” and I went back to this beautiful song and said, ‘That’s what I want to do!”. So I called my producer Michael Allison on Sunday and said “Listen, could we do this and have it out in time for VE Day?”.
I just wanted to do something and add my contribution to the veterans and the people who have fought for us. We literally did it over the phone! He put the track together on Monday and Tuesday and gave me the rough track and I recorded some of it on the Wednesday and Thursday and we had it ready for Thursday night.“
“The song’s not just for VE Day”
Peter is keen that the song should have longevity and wants it to keep on helping the Royal Hospital:
“It’s not just for VE Day though, it’s for afterwards too. I want more people to become aware of it and donate to the Chelsea Pensioners. I think the Royal Hospital is great and so beautiful. Just to go in is glorious. Although it’s a generation and a way of life we don’t see much, it’s not stuck in the past though, it’s very much now.
Lockdown has been a period of reflection and has made me think we don’t make time to enjoy things – we’re always rushing around. That’s what I like about the Chelsea Pensioners. That generation have time. We don’t look after ourselves from that point of view.”
“I hope people will listen and give to the Pensioners”
The song for the Royal Hospital has been Peter’s only recording during the lockdown period and one that he’s loved doing:
“I enjoyed it immensely, it almost happened organically. I really hope people will listen to The White Cliffs and give to the Chelsea Pensioners, even if it’s just a pound. I hope I can come and sing outside for them too, when lockdown has lifted.”
Peter Straker is a Jamaican-born singer and actor. Best known for his work in West End theatre productions, he first came to fame in 1968 as one of the stars in the original London production of the controversial ‘Hair’, and since then has gone on to appear in countless musicals including ‘Tommy’, ‘The Original Phantom of the Opera’, ‘The Rocky Horror Show’ and ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’.
Multi-talented, he has also acted in theatre productions that have extended from Shakespeare to pantomime, and appeared on television and film in diverse roles in ‘Doctor Who’, detective series, ‘80s melodrama ‘Connie’ and Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones comedy ‘Morons in Outer Space’.
Straker has also since the early ‘70s staged his own regular cabaret shows, performing the songs of his hero Jacques Brel as well as his own material, often co-written by himself with his guitarist and regular musical director, Mike Allison. He has released four studio albums. ‘Private Parts’, the first of these, came out in 1972, and was followed by ‘This One’s On Me’ (1977), ‘Changeling’ (1978) and ‘Real Natural Man’ (1980).
None of the albums sold well at the time, caught out perhaps by the backlash of punk, but the three latter albums in particular have gained word-of-mouth cult appeal in the forty years since they were originally released. After being many years deleted, they were re-released in a three CD box set by Cherry Red Records offshoot, Strike Force Entertainment, in March.
‘This One’s On Me’, which was co-produced by Straker’s great friend Freddie Mercury in his first production role, balances its own path between musical, cabaret and rock. It includes stunning covers of Brel’s ‘Jackie’, Bertolt Brecht’s ‘The Alabama Song’ and Lorraine Ellington’s ‘Heart Be Still’, as well as Straker’s flamboyantly tongue-in-cheek own composition, ‘I’ve Been to Hell and Back’. There are also tributes to the silent era of Hollywood and Charlie Chaplin in ‘The Day the Talkies Came’ and ‘Ragtime Piano Joe’.
‘Changeling’, which was produced by Tim Friese-Greene (Talk Talk, the Catherine Wheel), is in a similar musical vein to ‘This One’s On Me’, while ‘Real Natural Man’, which was produced by Deep Purple, Meatloaf and Rolling Stones producer Reinhold Mack, has a stronger rock element.
When Pennyblackmusic spoke to Peter Straker a few days before lockdown he was appearing in the first English language production of ‘La Cage Aux Folles’, but, gracious and charming, found time in a busy schedule to speak to us about the reissues.
For the full interview go to: http://www.pennyblackmusic.co.uk/MagSitePages/Article/9565/Peter-Straker-Interview
Peter Straker – This One’s On Me [Strike Force Entertainment/ Cherry Red – 2020]
Here we have a CD boxset that brings together the three late 70’s to early 80’s albums from Peter Straker- all three albums are passionate, creative, and often playful cross-breeds between Rock & Cabaret- making for three of the more distinctive & original rock albums to appear from the period.
The release appears Strike Force Entertainment- one of the sub-label of Cherry Red- the three-CD set is presented in a glossy red flipside box, with each of the CD’s coming in their own replica mini album slip sleeves. The sets is topped off with a fat, glossy & largely colour forty-eight-page booklet-this features all the songs lyrics & credits for each of the three albums, as well as a few write-ups- first a two-page piece about Straker friendship & work with to Queen Singer Freddy Mercury, the second an eight-page recording overview- the booklet topped off with a full list of all the screen, stage, and concert performances Straker made- so really a nice looking & well put together set.
Jamaican-born singer and actor Peter Straker first shot to fame in 1968 with a west end production of Hair- and he went onto appear in a host of stage shows from the time such as Pete Townshend’s Tommy, Ken Hill’s The Original Phantom of the Opera, Hot Stuff, Blues in the Night, The Rocky Horror Show. He also acted in classical roles in the likes Julius Caesar and Measure for Measure , as well as small-screen roles such as bit parts in Doctor Who & the Stephanie Beacham centered drama/ soap Connie. So a very versatile & talented man, and of course you can add the above impressive list of accomplishments to the three albums we have to hand here.
So moving onto the music with-in, and on the first disc, we have Peter’s second album 1977 This One’s On Me, which followed up his 1972 debut album Private Parts. This One’s On Me took in ten tracks and was produced by Freddie Mercury & respected English record producer, songwriter, arranger Roy Thomas Baker.
The albums a wonderfully charming, varied & consistent release that perfectly blends together elements of rock & stage- we move from the dramatically bounding piano & swirling-to-simmering rock guitar of “I’ve Been To Hell And Back” with Straker showy-yet-punchy voice soaring & darting in fine fashion. Onto the manic & marching piano ‘n’ percussion retake of Kurt Weill “Alabama Song”, which most famously appeared on the first Doors album. Though prancing & dancing 1920’s go-rock Cabaret of “The Annual Penguin Show”- which features what sounds like a tap-dancing breakdown. Or the melodic clear picked guitar melodies & flamboyant yet emotional vocals of “The Saddest Clown” which features some very Queen-like back harmonies. In all the album runs at thirty-seven minutes, with each of the tracks never outstaying thier welcome, and there’s a good variation of tracks too- which both highlight Straker rich & expressive voice, and the musical prowess of his five-member backing band.
Moving onto disc two, and we have Peter’s third album 1978’s Changeling- this was produced by Tim Freese-Greene, who was most known for working with Talk Talk. The album was a ten-track affair, and once again it’s a varied & largely consist release, which has a slightly more meaty rock guitar edge to many of the tracks- though it still remains fairly genre mixing in its feel. We go from roaring ‘n’ darting “D-D-D-D-D-Danger” with soaring & chugging guitar riffing, bouncing keys, and Straker powerful, at times almost punk august tinged vocals. Onto the jaunting stagey-meets-rock guitar harmonics & falsetto backing vocals of “Sweet, Sweet Music”. The more laid back-yet bounding blues-tinged rock meets showy piano rolls of “Tear Down The Walls” with Straker singing moving between rocking warbling, gospel-like rising, and stage bound dramatics. The album finishers in a decidedly stripped-back form with “Talk About Me”- which is just tight–yet-intricate acoustic guitar & Straker wavering-yet- slightly forlorn vocals. Once again is Changeling another well balanced & largely rewarding album.
Moving to the final disc in the set, and we have 1980’s Real Natural Man- the original album took in ten tracks, and once again it’s a good selection of well-written songs- with Straker spread his genre wings wider. We move from falsetto doo-wop meets shearing guitar groove of “Nasty”, onto stones-meet-rocked-up-Bowie vibe of “They Got You Dancing”. Through to the strutting guitar meets throbbing bass guitar reggae rock of “Illusions, Confusions”, onto grand & felt singer-songwriter piano and rising vocals of “Melancholy”. Sadly this was Straker last album until 2013’s Peter Straker’s Brel- which is a pity, as he still had so much to give- this disc is topped off with three extra tracks- two from 1982, and a shorter single version of one of the album tracks.
It’s great to see these three albums getting such a nice & classy reissue- and I’d say if you have enjoyed the place where theatrical/ show-ness-meets-rock this set is a must-have item for you. So I’d say fans of Antony And The Johnsons, Marc Almond, and similar need to take note.
Roger Batty Musique Machine: Multi-Genre Music Magazine
❉ A welcome release from Cherry Red and a chance for people to appreciate some great, underrated gems.
“If you look at the history of British popular music over the past fifty years, it is full of artists that really should have been huge but for some unfathomable reason, weren’t. Peter Straker – dubbed a cult icon by this very website – is a prime example of this.
Jamaican-born Straker is perhaps most well known for being one of Freddie Mercury’s closest friends (he appeared in drag alongside Roger Taylor and Freddie as a backing singer in the promo video for The Great Pretender). He also provided backing vocals for Freddie Mercury and Monserrat Caballe’s 1987 album, Barcelona.
Of course, many of you reading this will no doubt recall Straker starring opposite Tom Baker as Movellan Commander Sharrel in the 1979 Doctor Who television story Destiny Of The Daleks. Reportedly, the only known Doctor Who story that Freddie Mercury specially tuned in for!”
Beautiful words from journalist Ignacio Reyo who has chosen ‘Heart Be Still’ to be Rockzone’s Jewel of the Day!
“To brighten up the faces of those who had a good Valentine’s hangover, whether accompanied or at the hotel of broken hearts, nothing better than listening to ‘Heart Be Still’, a dark song from the seventies of singer Peter Straker, who has relaunched with new video clip.
The theme belongs to the fantastic album This One’s On Me produced by his friend Freddie Mercury and the usual producer of Queen Roy Thomas Baker in 1977. The album will be reissued again with a couple of more Straker works in what promises to be one of the best releases of the year. Heal or take care of your heart and enjoy this unique song.”
Peter Straker’s arrived in Edinburgh ladies and gentlemen. Prepare to be entertained, seduced and electrified by an artist whose career has spanned over fifty years. Straker shot to fame after his performance in the original production of Hair on Broadway in ’68 and since then he’s performed in numerous musicals, appeared in TV shows such as Doctor Who and has worked with Freddie Mercury. Black Magic is a night of impassioned and theatrical renditions of big band rock and particularly glam rock songs enthused with humour, chocolates and just a little bit of magic.
Straker enters the stage in style, coming through the audience and singing his heart out. His fantastic rendition of Sympathy for the Devil sets the tone for the evening. It’s a fun, powerful and theatrical version accompanied brilliantly by the band. When the song reaches its climax, and Straker asks one last time, ‘What’s my name?’ the band whisper ‘Straker’ and the lights flicker. The theatrical antics continue with a powerhouse performance of I Put a Spell on You that echoes Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ original studio recording and is sung intimately, focused on one person Straker picks out in the audience. Later he conducts the audience in a joint rendition of the (Day-o) Banana Boat Song, gives out chocolates and even does a little bit of magic. Straker also performs some of his own songs and of course Queen’s ‘It’s a kind of Magic’. The five piece band are also fantastic, accompanying Straker with panache and a little theatrical flair of their own.
Straker oozes style, echoing greats like Tom Jones, Freddie Mercury and even Jagger and Bowie. He runs round the stage, gyrates his hips, jumps around and sings in a beautiful tenor tone. The theatricality of the night is enhanced greatly by the fantastic lighting design as well as Straker’s unique little touches to proceedings. He engages with almost everyone in the audience making the performance feel intimate and even a little special. Or maybe we should say, magical.
Still here? Peter Straker sure can say that again. He’s really gone and done it this time: the best hour’s cabaret he’s ever delivered, and in the festival’s best new venue.
The Ghillie Dhu is a newly converted chapel right next to the Caledonian Hotel, with a big, buzzy bar and a superb cabaret space in its vaulted upper regions.
Straker’s show, directed as usual by Mel Smith comes with a five-piece band led by Warren Wills at the piano and an added bonus of that great revue and Joan Littlewood veteran, Toni Palmer.
The main man’s on fire, singing an incredible range of stuff from “Moon River” to “MacArthur Park” (yes, it’s funny and ridiculous), Harry Belafonte, Alan Price, Queen, Mika, Simon and Garfunkel, Jaques Brel, Randy Newman and Peter Gabriel.
If you’ve seen Straker before, you’ll want to go again. If you haven’t, do yourself a big favour, and just go.
‘I am not Jacques Brel,’ Peter Straker playfully reminds the audience after his first song. However, with Straker’s theatricality and a stage set up as Brel’s dressing room, complete with assorted bottles of alcohol, one would be forgiven for forgetting that he was not the Belgian songwriter responsible for the wonderful music on display.
Over the course of the performance, Straker is highlighting more than just Brel’s music. Empty time at the show’s beginning and between each song is filled with real footage and biographical information about the enchanting chanteur. Fleeting moments spent pretending to put on make-up in the on stage mirror or quoting Brel at his most philosophical elevate the show above being simply a concert or showcase. Combined with Straker’s masterful performance of translated classics, such as ‘Amersterdam’ and ‘Mathilde,’ Brel’s life and music are linked to seemingly raise the man from the dead.
A long standing veteran of the West End stage, Straker’s penchant for performing is well known and admired. Those expecting a complete performance from the Jamaican singer will be more than satisfied as he covers a range of material from Brel’s most energetic and passionate songs to his more tender. His backing band is small – a bass, piano, and guitar – but they do an excellent job of striking the right balance between showing off Brel’s ability as a composer and letting Straker show his ability as a singer.
Through Straker we are reminded that Brel’s music was inspired by his love of home, his love of drink, his fear of death and more, giving the familiar material a personality and vivacity which, for many of us, has long faded. Straker’s impressive performance reminds us of the man behind the well-known music. For fans of Brel, fans of Straker, and fans of music this show should not be missed.
Peter Straker delivers an outstanding performance in this hour long tribute to singer-songwriter Jacques Brel. The show is not merely a celebration of the works of Brel but rather a celebration of Straker’s life-long love affair with the music of the Belgian star. Straker first came to fame as Hud in the 1968 London production of Hair and he has gone on to release albums and appear on stage and screen over the last forty five years. Brel’s music has played a big part in Straker’s career, perhaps most notably his rendition of ‘Jackie’ released on his 1977 album This One’s On Me.
Straker is a fantastic showman and he switches effortlessly between the different styles throughout Brel’s extensive catalogue. The camp theatricality of songs such as Madame and Amsterdam are performed with such gusto and infectious energy that it’s an incredible transformation when Straker turns his masterful voice to ballads such as ‘Flatlands‘ or his breath-taking encore rendition of ‘If We Only Have Love’.
The songs are linked together by projections, props and various costume changes courtesy of legendary costume designer Sue Blane. There is a loose narrative throughout where Straker gives us brief glimpses into the life behind the legend informing us of Brel’s penchant for women, alcohol and cigarettes which cleverly brings together each song.
If you’re looking for a biographical exploration of the life and works of Jacques Brel this show will perhaps not tick all your boxes. However if you’re looking for a fantastic hour of entertainment safe in the hands of a performer who seriously knows how to put on a show you will be in your element. This is a real Fringe highlight – don’t miss it!
I’d seen some great reviews for Peter Straker’s cabaret shows in past Fringes, but the only thing I’d ever seen him in was the TV series Connie in the mid-’80s, so I thought it was time to catch up with his show.
Straker pays tribute to the work of Jacques Brel and, to some extent, to his life, but this isn’t a biographical piece; it is all about the music. After an overture, a film clip of Brel talking on a big screen and the song “Brussels”, Straker tells us, “I’m not Jacques Brel, but if I were, just for an hour, what would I dream?”.
What follows is a sequence of anecdotes about the singer’s life with appropriate songs attached to them and some of Brel’s uniquely French philosophy from his own lips in film clips. It’s all perfectly and smoothly integrated together.
The track listing is nicely varied in tone and subject matter, inevitably including the most famous “Jacky” plus “Amsterdam”, “Madame”, “Next”, “If You Go Away” and many more.
These songs require a big, theatrical interpretation to get the most out of them, and that’s exactly what they get from Straker’s energetic performance that could fill a room twice this size. It’s exciting, invigorating and life-affirming.
I didn’t buy a programme (a pound for a programme on the Fringe?) but I did buy a CD coming out so I could take a little piece of this show with me.
While most of Edinburgh was watching Chris Hoy bring in his Olympic Gold, I was with about a hundred and twenty people in the company of Straker to witness a masterclass in performance.
This mixed media piece takes us into the world of Brel’s dreams – dreams defined as a desire to achieve and Brel’s belief that the dream is talent. Projections are woven throughout the piece – footage of Brel in interview and performance and landscapes evoking the Belgium he loved so very deeply.
Straker never takes an audience for granted: he woos them and wins them with his extraordinary talent. His connection with lyric and assured delivery of every syllable and every note are peerless. His rendition of ‘Amsterdam’ is nothing less than definitive – precision teamed with a passion that gives way to abandon.
The finale of Brel’s translation of ‘The Impossible Dream’ is profoundly moving.
The onstage trio of musicians never falter in this exquisite hour – go see – learn how the master does it so well.